Does Religion Make You Happy? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: www.CGPGrey.com)

(Photo: www.CGPGrey.com)

This week’s episode is called “Does Religion Make You Happy?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

We undertook this episode in response to a listener question from Joel Rogers, a tax accountant in Birmingham, Ala. Here’s what he wrote:

Being devout Southern Baptists my parents have steadfastly been giving 10% of their income to the church their whole lives. I recently voiced my opinion that I thought that was too [much to] give, and my parents and I got into an argument.

After a little back-and-forth, my parents conceded tithing at 10% may not be the exact amount ‘God’ expects, but my mother said something that stuck with me. She said the 10% they give to the church makes them happier than anything else they spend money on.

I’ve read that people who go to religious institutions consistently are happier than their counterparts. The economist inside me says that money (not given to the church) would make a non-tither happier, all things equal. So, will exchanging 10% of your income for the right to participate in a religious congregation statistically increase or decrease your happiness?

Joel is in effect asking two questions, related but separate. One is whether giving away money – in this case, to a religious institution – makes you happier. The other is whether religion itself makes you happier. Neither question is easy to answer, but we’ll do our best.

In the episode you’ll hear from Laurence Iannaccone, an economist at Chapman University who specializes in the economics of religion. Iannaccone says there is a strong correlation between religious giving and happiness but, as you’ll find out, just because giving and happiness seem to go hand in hand doesn’t mean the giving causes the happiness.

You’ll also hear from MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who has done quite a bit of research on these topics. In “Pay or Pray? The Impact of Charitable Subsidies on Religious Attendance” (abstract; PDF), Gruber tried to determine whether giving money to church is a complement to religious attendance or a substitute — and, whether it’s the giving or the going that actually makes people better off. Here’s his suggestion for the Rogers Family:

GRUBER: I would say if it’s really going … to church that matters for them, for their happiness and well-being, then they should maybe even give less and just go more.

And here’s what Gruber found in his paper “Religious Market Structure, Religious Participation, and Outcomes: Is Religion Good for You?” (abstract; PDF):

GRUBER: [The religious are] more likely to have higher incomes, higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any economic measure you want to use.

In the podcast, Stephen Dubner also wonders: what if you’ve been giving to your church but find you’re no better off in the long run? As it turns out, some churches, like NewSpring in South Carolina, offer a money-back guarantee.

Finally: a big thanks to the Rogers Family (as well as to WBHM producer Andrew Yeager), who let us go to church with them at Grace Life Baptist Church in McCalla, Alabama.

Rogers Family


Matt

I have a question with regards to the religiosity experiment on polish catholics in Boston versus Minneapolis.

Did he (John?) do a negative control in which he tested the happiness levels in two different population densities of atheists? Seems like this would allow them to establish whether a like-minded group (similar to the ethnic similarities of say Polish) is alone associated with happiness in the absence of religion. If there is a difference it might be interesting to see how much of the effect is due to religion and how much due to the social advantages of like-mindedness.

Also I imagine that this is not a linear relationship in that there might be exponential gains (or diminishing returns, I have no idea) in happiness with increasing atheism/religion in a given population. Any evidence for this?

James

I also wonder about the reasons for happiness. It would be interesting (not to say provocative) to do comparative studies of the happiness of say people engaged in multi-level marketing schemes, or victims of Ponzi schemes before the scheme is exposed.

After all, why shouldn't the religious be happier? Not only do they get to hang out with a bunch of like-minded people, they get to believe that they'll eventually get something of great value, and in the meanwhile enjoy the gratification of being able to feel superior to everyone who refuses to join.

Nate

A true test of whether tithing is what makes people happy as opposed to simply going to church can be extrapolated with a simple thought experiment. Survey current happiness levels of a congregation, and then have all the churches expenses covered for the period of one year/month/quarter, requiring no offerings to be collected. Then gauge the happiness levels at the end of that period.

Would having more money in their pockets while still enjoying the same fellowship and worship levels of church have a negative effect on overall happiness levels? Is tithing simply part of the process of 'suffering' as [insert deity] did?

I would venture to guess that tithing is simply a monetary representation of the value that church gives a person. Some people pay the 'fare' in devotion(e.g. attendence) others choose to pay with money.

J1

I doubt you'd find any effect on happiness if you suspended offerings, as people donating a significant amount to their church consider doing so to be sacrifice, not suffering (they aren't the same thing). If their church stopped collections for a year, they'd donate that money elsewhere. With respect to your third paragraph, there's an extremely strong correlation between attendance and financial support.

Jeff

Just a quick preemptive post. Can we keep the typical internet hate speech and disrespect for people with different opinions at zero?

Steve MoneyPlanSOS Stewart

In completely biased about this subject, so let me gently approach the topic by saying the original question is flawed (the question he asks in the podcast, not the one in the copy of his letter above). Joel's question in the podcast was "Will FORFEITING 10% of your income for THE RIGHT to go to a church make you happier?"

FORFEITING: God asks us to GIVE 10% to the church. It's not a demand and tithing is not one of the 10 Commandments. There is no "forfeiting" when someone gives (although I will concede there is the opportunity cost displacement). The closest thing to a demand in the Bible is Malachi 3:10 where God says to test him: "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it."

THE RIGHT: I don't know of any church in the States that makes you give money in order to allow you to go to church ("the RIGHT to go to a church"). If that were true then they would be charging for tickets or asking for donations at the door.

Note: I didn't give any money to my church for most of my early adult years and I was never fined, kicked out, or flogged because of it.

Personally, we give a 10% tithe because He asks us to. We give more because it makes us feel great. We know what most of our monetary gifts are used for (building projects, missions, Humane Society, etc...) and there is no question that we feel as if we are part of a greater good.

I pray others will challenge their perceptions of giving money and look at the motives behind it. If they can't come to a conclusion then I would ask that they give it a try: Go to church, give 10% for 90 days, and see if they don't see/feel/experience a change.

What have they got to lose? 10%?

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Zach

Man, thank god you didn't talk to any of those unhappy atheists. We wouldn't have wanted to hear their unhappy opinions.

Rachel

Saying that religion makes people happy is in no way implying that Atheists are unhappy.

Brendan

I wonder if there was any consideration given to the negative utility of spending a significant amount of your life believing in something that is not true. Delusional people can be happier than rational people. I don't think that makes it a desirable way to spend ones time.

Mike

I also have a question about the Boston/Minneapolis study. What would happen if they looked outside the USA? Religion, prosperity and happiness differ around the world.

M.E. O'Brien

Financial contributions are just one way to support your faith.... Reading and adhering to revealed principles and living your faith are also important along with bringing its light to others who actively seek to find it

Anne

I have been tithing 10% for many,many years. 5% to my Church & 5% to other causes. I have significant credit card debt at the moment & have been considering suspending my tithing for a while till it's paid off. I'm really conflicted about this but think I'm going to do it. Would appreciate any thoughts from those who tith.

Ed

Man's happiness lies in God, we are made for God. Religion is the road to communion with God, to living with God. Tithing is optional in the Catholic Church, it is sensible, and Biblical, and part of the way one makes one's heart attached to God. As Jesus told us 'If you seek the Kingdom of God first, all the rest will be given unto you' (paraphrase). Man's purpose is the live with, love and serve God, in this world and in the next (Baltimore Catechism). But one can also say, in regard to atheists, that God's will is that all persons be brought to salvation, and that people who are atheists but do good and have good will certainly have hope (see John the Baptists's advice to soldiers, etc. in the Bible.)

Fran

Being a tither makes me neither happy nor unhappy. My happiness comes from within. My experience with relatives and friends who consider themselves devout and are tithers is as follows: tithing guarantees them a seat in heaven in exchange for their 'faithful' worship of using their religion like a missile every opportunity they get, regardless of how out of sync their daily lives are with the teachings of the Great One.

Sue

The declaration of independence aside, the pursuit of happiness isn't the point, and confounds the discussion. It's about a relationship with God, and the "giving" part is partially about devotion, and partially about investing in what you care about. If you question a person why they give gifts to their beloved, pointing out they might be just as happy if they kept the money, you'd be considered absurd and pretty dense. That's how this discussion seems to me. If you don't have any such relationship, then why would you understand?

Peg

Is there as correlation between paying a 10% tithe and not wanting to pay taxes to government? AND I am a very poor very happy athiest and I wouldn't dream of paying 10% of my income to a church.

Anne

Nothing would make more me unhappy to know that the hypothetical 10% I gave went to an institution that systematically covered for pedophiles, moving them from one location to another; that has its NGO turn off food donations in Africa for those who are also getting condoms; and that spends millions to circumvent and invalidate the Affordable Care Act and spearheads exemption from providing in any way, shape, or form the benefit of contraception.

Pamela

One of the expectations of membership in my church is that you contribute some amount of money, whether it is a tithe or something else. Not everyone can afford to tithe, but whatever one can give is appreciated. I am happy to give to my church because I know that the money is going towards charitable causes, and it enables my church to do the work it is expected to do as a religious entity. That is a source of happiness to me, that my contribution is used in this manner.

I have some trouble, however, with the word "happy" when speaking about religion, perhaps due to how we tend to use the word in everyday parlance and to how we understand this word in popular culture. We seem to think of "happy" as a state of constant euphoria or ceaseless mirth. There are various types of happiness, such as contentment, satisfaction, and joy (which is the word that appears in many examples of holy writ, notably in the Bible). But for the purpose of this discussion, I am happy to be a person of faith because I am part of a larger and supportive community of believers; because my faith gives me tools for living this not always happy life, and there is joy in knowing that someone else, in the real person of Christ, who walked the same path of living as I am and prevailed over it. Moreover, my faith's overarching teaching is that of Love, which is the greatest source of happiness of all.

Thank you.

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Azulum

Wishful thinking makes people happier. Thus, money and time spent in pursuit of wishful thinking makes people happier. And those whose wishful thinking was not strong enough to subdue the weeds of doubt? Or those whose circumstances were so difficult that, unlike Job, they never recover? They fall out of the sample. And whether due to shame or disenfranchisement, they are more likely to sever ties with their traditions, losing not just the benefit of shared belief, but the infrastructure as well.

The night is dark and full of terrors. Few who stare into the depths of oblivion ever come back with the sense that everything is going to turn out fine because Jesus and Buddha and Pollyanna.